Oklahoma vs. Ohio State on Saturday is a big game for everyone in college football, but an even bigger game for the Sooners.
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Sep 10, 2016; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver Nick Basquine (83) and Oklahoma Sooners wide receiver A.D. Miller (13) celebrate after a touchdown against the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks during the second quarter at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
One of the big takeaways from Oklahoma’s gut-wrenching loss to Houston to open the 2016 season was that the underdog Cougars played like they wanted to game much more than the Sooners. That is generally the case in any contest matching two highly competitive sides.
Which is why I cannot imagine Oklahoma not approaching Saturday’s showdown with the favored Buckeyes as if the entire season depended on it. The stakes are clearly high on both sides, but the Sooners have the rare opportunity this weekend for a do-over and the chance to demonstrate what they are really capable of against a team that is higher ranked and even more talented than Houston.
The Sooners entered the 2016 season with strong considerations for being one of the four College Playoff Teams. The loss to Houston dealt a damaging blow to Oklahoma’s Playoff hopes
The light may be flickering for the Sooners right now, but it’s not out. A win over Ohio State would pump amazing new life back into OU’s national title chances and bring the Sooners almost all the way back from the near dead.
Oklahoma would still have that one big blemish to contend with in the loss column, but by knocking off No. 4-ranked Ohio State, the loss to Houston, another ranked opponent, would be viewed a whole lot differently.
One of the intriguing story lines associated with Saturday’s marquee matchup is Oklahoma’s phenomenal home record under head coach Bob Stoops and Ohio State’s equally impressive road record.
Dec 31, 2015; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Oklahoma Sooners head coach Bob Stoops in the third quarter of the 2015 CFP Semifinal at the Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The Sooners have lost just eight times in 105 home games since Stoops became the Oklahoma head coach at the beginning of the 1999 season. And they have gone undefeated at home in three of the last six campaigns, including last season.
While playing at home has weighed heavily in OU’s favor in recent years, the Buckeyes have proven to be the best road team in college football the last four seasons.
The last time Ohio State lost a road game dates back to the final game of the regular season in 2011 against archrival Michigan. Since then, the Buckeyes have won 18 consecutive games on the road, the longest active winning streak in the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision). The next closest active road streak is 11 games fewer than Ohio State, shared by a group of four teams that includes Oklahoma.
Saturday’s contest between the Sooners and the Buckeyes is only the third time these two teams have met. Ironically, in both of the previous games, the road team prevailed. The Sooners won 29-28 in 1977 at Ohio State, when OU was ranked No. 3 and Ohio State was No. 4 in the country. The No. 6 Buckeyes evened the score with a 24-14 victory in 1983 at No. 2-ranked Oklahoma.
What You Need to Know About the Sooners
Quarterback Baker Mayfield has competed 73 percent of his passes through two games in 2016, including five touchdown passes. He is averaging 283.5 yards per game, but played only the first half in the win over Louisiana-Monroe. Despite playing only a half, Mayfield threw for 244 yards and three touchdowns last Saturday.
Mayfield was more disciplined in his second game, getting rid of the ball much quicker than he did in the season opener with Houston and spreading the wealth on the receiving end, targeting eight different receivers. Importantly, Mayfield has not surrendered an interception through the first two games.
If the Sooners learned anything from the Houston loss it was the importance of establishing and sustaining the run game. After gaining just 70 yards rushing against Houston, OU gained 288 yards on the ground, 125 of those yards coming from Joe Mixon. Samaje Perine, who can claim the OU career rushing record with a strong 2016 season, added 58 rushing yards against ULM. They will need that and more from the bruising Perine against Ohio State.
The Oklahoma offense is averaging 41 points in its two games, but it will be counting on the Sooner defensive unit to get third-down stops and limit the amount of time the high-scoring Ohio State offense (62.5 points per game, second best in the nation) is on the field.
What You Need to Know About Ohio State
Sep 10, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett (16) calls out to his teammates prior to the snap in the second half against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State won 48-3. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett is as good at his position as any college player in America. A dual threat quarterback – which, historically, has been like kryptonite to the Oklahoma defense – Barrett is the individual who makes the Buckeye offense go.
The junior Buckeye signal caller has thrown for 498 yards and six touchdowns in Ohio State’s two victories this season. He’s also contributed 85 rushing yards. All six of Barrett’s TD passes came in OSU’s season-opening win over Bowling Green. He also had a rushing touchdown in that game.
The Buckeyes are the least experienced of any team in one of the five Power Conferences, having returned just six starters from a year ago. You would hardly know it, though, from their performance in the first two games.
Redshirt freshman running back Mike Weber has taken over where departed All-American Ezekiel Elliott left off in 2015. Weber has gained 228 yards in his first two collegiate games, averaging over six yards per carry. The Buckeyes have a second dangerous back who is utilized very similarly to the way Oklahoma employs Joe Mixon. Junior Curtis Samuel has run for 162 yards and has 14 pass receptions for 239 yards and two touchdowns.
As good as Ohio State is on offense, the Buckeyes may be even better on the defensive side. Through the first two games, the Buckeye defense has forced a nation-leading nine turnovers, seven of them coming on interceptions. Safety Malik Hooker already has picked off three passes to lead the country in that category.
The Buckeyes are third in the country, allowing opponents just 6.5 points per game, and rank fifth nationally in total defense.
Three Key Factors in This Game
The Sooners need to run the football effectively behind the combination of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, and on defense they need to shut down the Ohio State running game and force J.T. Barrett to beat them through the air.
OU quarterback Baker Mayfield needs to play smart and release the ball quickly.
Oklahoma needs to pick up positive yardage on early downs and keep out of third- and-long situations. The Ohio State defense is too good to allow third-down conversions when the offensive options are more limited.
My pick: With two explosive offenses, you would expect this to be a high-scoring affair. I think the first team to 35 points wins this game. The team that plays the best red-zone defense and minimizes the number of mental and physical mistakes (i.e., fewest penalties and turnovers) will come out on top.
The last time Oklahoma was an underdog at home was 17 seasons ago, on Oct. 28, 2000, when the third-ranked Sooners hosted No. 1 Nebraska. Oklahoma overcame a 14-point first-quarter deficit, scoring the final 31 points in the game to win going away, 31-14. The Sooners moved to the No. 1 spot in the rankings and remained there the rest of the season, completing a perfect 13-0 season with a 13-2 victory over favored Florida State in the national championship game.
Ohio State has dominated its first two 2016 opponents (Bowling Green and Tulsa) by the combined score of 125-13. Be careful what you read into those numbers, though. Neither of those two Buckeye opponents have the offensive firepower or overall player talent that Oklahoma has. The Sooners present the first real test of the season for Ohio State. On the other side, the Buckeyes will be the second ranked opponent Oklahoma has faced in the first three weeks.